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Impacts The Palm Oil Industry In Malaysia Environmental Sciences Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Environmental Sciences
Wordcount: 2577 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Oil palm plantation development is defined as opening up of land areas for the purpose of cultivating oil palm and carrying out other related activities such as land clearing, biomass management and disposal, earthworks, planting and replanting activities. Environmentalists said the rapidly growing palm oil sector was not only responsible for the loss of vast areas of tropical forests that soaked up carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, but emitted warming gases during processing.

Certain types of palm trees produce large red fruit which are rich with oil. After refining, this oil, known as palm oil, can be used to produce all sorts of products, including oils used in foods like chocolates and cookies, cosmetics like makeup, and even biodiesel, a fuel that can be used in cars instead of diesel (gasoline). 

Oil palms, as these trees are called, have very high oil yields — some of the highest of any crop used for biofuel (plant-based fuel) production. A single hectare (2.5 acres) can produce up to 7 tons of oil, many times what would be produced from the same area of corn, soy, or canola. 

Given its high yield and the many uses for its oil, it may seem that oil palm is a great solution to dwindling supplies of fossil fuels and concerns about global warming (the burning of fossil fuels is a major contributor of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere). However, there are problems is some places where palm oil is being produced, specifically the tropical rainforests of Malaysia and Indonesia. 

About 88 percent of global palm oil production was in Malaysia and Indonesia in 2007. Although much of this production took place on land long ago established for agriculture, some of it occurred in areas that were newly cleared specifically for oil palm cultivation. 

The most threatened ecosystems by expansion of oil palm plantations are rainforests and peatlands. Peatlands are swampy areas where the soils are made of peat – decomposed vegetation. Peat acts as a sponge, soaking up water and helping prevent floods. It also stores large amounts of carbon.

When peatlands are drained, the stored carbon reacts with air to release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, increasing concentrations of the greenhouse gas. The dry peat then becomes highly flammable, increasing the risk of large-scale fires when plantation developers use fire to clear land and burn agricultural waste. 

Greenhouse gas emissions also result when rainforest is cleared for oil palm plantations. Worse, oil palm plantations support very low levels of biodiversity, meaning most of the plants and animals once found in the rainforest must either move or perish. Oil palm plantations are not good for wildlife and endangered species like the orangutan, the Sumatran rhino, the pygmy elephant of Borneo, and the Sumatran tiger are all threatened by development for oil palm. 

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2.1 Environmental Impacts of the Palm oil Industry in Malaysia

The palm oil industry adopts and implements sustainable and good agricultural practices, yet is has been accused of unsustainable practices including the destruction of rainforests and wildlife habitat, particularly the orang utan. These accusations driven by campaigns have resulted in misunderstanding among some traditional palm oil end users who have in turn taken drastic steps to reduce their palm oil usage in consumer products. The negative publicity perpetrated by the NGOs sometimes has led to calls to boycott palm based products. These negative campaigns have similarly dented the use of palm oil as a renewable fuel requiring the need to prove that it is sustainably produced.

The Malaysian palm oil industry, backed by more than 90 years of responsible plantation practices on legally approved agricultural land in accord with legislations in the country, has similarly not been spared these accusations, despite numerous efforts to portray the correct efforts and information. The idea for the setting up of the Malaysian Palm Oil Wildlife Conservation Fund (MPOWCF) was therefore mooted by the Malaysian Palm Oil Council (MPOC) in 2006 coinciding with the period when the Malaysian palm oil industry was facing one of its biggest challenges in the form of these negative campaigns.

The environmental impacts of oil palm plantation development activities are:

Ecological impacts due to loss of habitats for diverse species of flora and fauna as a result of land development.

Soil erosion due to land clearing resulting impacts to water quality and hydrology (flood).

Air pollution due to open burning for biomass disposal.

Water pollution due to usage of agro-chemicals.

Biomass generation from site clearing and field maintenance

Pest infestation due to the presence of degraded biomass

Traffic and transportation impacts particularly when harvesting.

Water pollution due to sewage generated from workers’ population.

Ecological impacts due to land development


Locality and site preparation activities are the two main aspects that contribute to the ecological impacts of an oil palm plantation development. Location of a proposed plantation that is within areas classified as ecologically “sensitive” may result in inadvertent clearing and subsequent removal and extinction of ecologically important habitats and species. Site clearing for access road, nursery and the oil palm plantation can directly damage the habitats for a broad range of terrestrial flora and fauna species as well as indirectly affecting the aquatic ecosystem relevant to the affected site.

Habitat Destruction

Land based. The establishment of an oil palm plantation will inevitably lead to clearing of almost the entire affected area. Such activity would result in loss of natural terrestrial habitats and cause certain degree of disturbance or ecological imbalances, depending on the existing ecological state of the affected area. The impairment can probably cause unfavourable conditions for the survival of the wildlife. Some animals particularly small ones need specialised habitats and are sensitive to environmental changes or significant loss of very productive niches, which in turn threaten their survival.

Removing the existing vegetation will significantly reduce the breeding ground of some important mammal pests of oil palms. The examples are monkeys, rodents, wild boar and porcupine. Bird population will be affected at minimal level as they can easily relocate to adjacent areas to set up their new resident.

Aquatic based. The complete clearing of forested area may temporarily cause problems in terms of water flow, surface erosion, sediment delivery to streams and poor water retention. The problems could further cause deteriorating water quality. However, the degradation is predicted to be restored after the establishment of the mature oil palm plantation. The biological resources that come about through the establishment of the plantation may significantly at least replace some important ecological roles of the former ecosystem.

Lost of species

The proposed oil palm plantation might result in loss in plant resources, which have been locally identified of their economic, commercial and ethnobotanical importance. Ecological status may also need to be ascertained even though the loss of certain protected plants may be relatively insignificant in terms of plant conservation if that particular plant species is not included in the IUCN Red Book. However, the presence of any endemic species should be highlighted.

The complete clearing of vegetation means destruction of breeding sites of birds and small mammals. Those affected animals are expected to move to the adjacent area for their new homes. During the plantation establishment, animals such as rats, porcupines or wild pigs will have sufficient foraging materials particularly the young shoots of the planted palms and most herbaceous plants that infested the opened space. As soon as the palms start to fruit, rodents and squirrels will continuously visit this area to feed on the oil palm fruits available. Improper clearing may cause some mammals such as slow moving species to be trapped (due to inadequate time to abandon the cleared site) and killed.

Highly mobile animals such as birds, monkeys, bearded pigs and deers could quickly move into adjacent sites for refuge and re-establishment of their habitats.

Soil erosion due to land clearing and development


When site clearing is carried out, removal of the protective vegetation cover and disturbance to soil surface will inevitably bring about soil erosion. The activities that bring about soil erosion for oil palm plantation development are tabulated in Table 2.6.

Table 2.6: Summary of EIA Matrix on Soil Erosion Impacts for Oil Palm Plantation

Development Activities

Key Environmental


Possible Cause Typical Effects

Soil Erosion

Ø Clearing and earthworks construction

of ac cess road

Ø Clearing and earthworks establishment

of base camp

Ø Site clearing and earthworks

for the nursery proper

Ø Site clearing and earthworks –

terracing, drainage works, infrastructure

Ø Reduction in arable soil from

plantation area

Ø Elevated TSS content and turbidity

in waterways downstream

Ø Reduction in channel capacity

of waterways due to sedimentation

leading to p otential localised


Air pollution due to open burning of biomass


Generation of biomass during site clearing will traditionally be followed by massive burning. In the very near past, this practice had resulted in a regional transboundary haze incident. Even though it is the easiest means to significantly reduce the biomass volume, due consideration on the regional impacts of open burning will make it less preferred. Activities in oil palm plantation development that result in air pollution are tabulated in Table 2.5.

Water pollution due to use of agro-chemicals


Water pollution for the proposed oil palm plantation development can be mainly due to usage and application of agro-chemicals such as fertiliser and pests control.

Usage of Chemicals Deterioration in water quality of waterways or water bodies within the catchment of the proposed plantation will mainly be in the form of chemical infiltration from the application of fertilisers and usage of agro-chemicals such as pesticides and weedicides.

Fertilisers Application The application of artificial fertilisers can lead to a marked increase in the nutrient concentrations of water draining from the fertilised areas. The main elements compounded in fertilisers are Nitrogen (N), Potassium (K), phosphorus (P) and magnesium (Mg). Fertilisers find their ways into the natural water sources via a few processes:

• They are being eroded away together with the surface soil and washed into the watercourses

• Leaching conveys soluble compounds into the groundwater

• Runoff carries both soluble and insoluble compounds into surface water sources.

N and P will have significant impact on water quality. N is mainly supplied bound in the forms of ammonium and / or nitrate compounds, and urea. Both ammonium compounds and urea are eventually converted into nitrate in the soil under well-drained condition. Nitrate, being soluble in water, will easily find its way into the water sources if precautions are not taken. Nitrate promotes undesirable growth of aquatic micro flora in watercourses.

P in the form of phosphate has the same euthrophication effect in surface water as nitrate, causing excessive wanton growth of algae, stopping sunlight from reaching aquatic life in deeper water. However, phosphate is less mobile than nitrate. Therefore, leaching loss of phosphate is small. Loss is mainly through runoff and soil erosion.

Fertilisers, if applied at the correct rates and evenly distributed over the ground surface during fine weather conditions should not pose environmental hazards as they are readily absorbed by plant roots. Some surplus that is not taken up by the roots would become absorbed or be converted into more insoluble forms within the soil environment and be released slowly, thereby posing no pollution hazards. Excessive and inappropriate applications will however create the potential for significant environmental impacts.

Pesticides/Weedicides In oil palm plantations, use of pesticides is minimal. Biological control methods have been proven to be quite effective (e.g. upkeeping plantation owl and snake populations). Under this scenario, impacts from this source will not be of great concern.

Additional Impacts

Pest Infestation

Impacts Pest infestation may become an environmental concern particularly when it has developed throughout the entire plantation. There are two types of pests, namely vertebrates and invertebrates. Vertebrate pests normally consist of rats, porcupines, squirrels, monkeys, pigs, elephants and birds, whereas invertebrate pests are nematodes, ants/termites, slugs/snails, grasshoppers, wasps/bees, beetles (leaf miner, weevils, cockchafers), oil palm bunch pests, sucking insects, and leaf-eating caterpillars (Turner & Gillbanks, 1974). This incident comes about when large amount of biomass is left on site to degrade naturally i.e. zero burning method. Not only growth and production of palm trees will be severely affected, intervention by using extra amount of pesticides will be necessary, which in turn may be a cause of water pollution.

The presence of large quantities of biomass will also provide shelter for certain pests such as rodents, which will forage on available palm fruits and thus creates the necessity to provide some form of control such as chemical or biological. Again, chemical control may become a source of water pollution.

Traffic and Transportation


Traffic and transportation activities within and due to the plantation result in dust and noise pollution as well as addition to the existing traffic volume. Traffic associated with oil palm plantation ranges from motorcycles for field workers/ supervisors, to transporting vehicles such as tractor-trailer combination and lorries. Significant traffic and transportation impacts take place during maintenance and harvesting stage i.e. transporting collected fresh fruit bunches (FFB) to the palm oil mills.

Water pollution due to sewage generation


Sewage will normally be generated by people at the project site during site preparation and field maintenance stages. Improper treatment of sewage will result in elevated COD, BOD and microbiological contents of the waterways.

Pollution from Hazardous Materials


Use and storage of hazardous materials such as used lubricants from the workshop and agrochemicals from the store may bring about potential pollution to the environment, particularly surface water quality. Appropriate storage area and proper disposal should be able to prevent possible spillage and inadvertent pollution.


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